Songs of freedom

This month on Africa Is a Country Radio we wrap up our seasonal theme of port cities, and make a stop in Dakar, Senegal. Listen on Worldwide FM or Mixcloud.

Photo by Carles Martinez on Unsplash

The history of Dakar has long been intertwined with the networks of exchange and exploitation that characterize the Black Atlantic. The peninsula that Dakar sits on today was ruled over by the Lebou people until the late nineteenth century. However, nearby Gorée island was occupied by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century and ruled over successively by every European slaving empire since.

Gorée became a major exit point for Africans during trans-Atlantic slave trade, and this would (again) mean that the cultures of the adjacent hinterland would go on to leave a significant mark on the new cultures forming in the Americas. When the French consolidated its rule over its colonial territory in West Africa, they would occupy the peninsula, and in 1902 France made Dakar the capital of a territory that stretched from the Cap Vert, across the Sahel to Lake Chad, and down the West coast of the continent. Back in the capital, France would build a colonial outpost that would mirror the logic of apartheid that was emerging across the entire continent.

Under the leadership of the poet-president Léopold Sédar Senghor, Senegal would gain its independence, and Dakar would become a central node in the cultural and political movements for African self-determination. The strong pan-African orientation of Dakar would turn it into a truly Afropolitan city, and today it retains a population as diverse as any capital in the Global North.

Like other post-colonial capitals in the early days of independence, Cuban music served as an orientation for modernity, and as various permutations of the rumba streamed in from the Kinshasa and Conakry, local musicians would try their hand at producing their own interpretation of the sound. Inserting local instruments and rhythms into local bands at the lively downtown music clubs, a popular music started to form called mbalax. This local live music scene would become a training ground for the continent’s biggest musical stars, while the live music scenes in many other post-colonial capitals would suffer the effects of economic decline and conflict. The subsequent global success of such names as Youssou N’dour, Baba Maal, Ishmael Lo, and Thione Seck would inject resources back into the local scene, allowing it to retain a unique vibrancy and local orientation throughout the years.

When hip hop started to make its way into the stereos of middle class youth with diaspora connections in Dakar, they would find a fertile ground from which they could produce, distribute, promote, and perform their experiments in this new genre. As the Senegalese rap scene, also known as rap Galsene, grew, it would come to rival mbalax in popularity, and even surpass it for many youth living at the city’s margins. As an uneasy relationship with the former colonial rulers would continue to plague the politics, economics, and culture of the nation, it was the hip hop scene that would take on a particularly political orientation. By the turn of the century, rappers would play an integral role in mobilizing working class youth to participate in the formal politics of the nation.

So in this show, we take a listen to how various global influences have come together with a strong sense of locality to create an epicenter of the World Music industry, and how the navigation of the post-colonial hangover served as an incubator for an explicitly political hip hop culture. We are lucky to have a highly informed and insightful guide as we explore the sounds of the city of Dakar, Senegalese rapper, oral literature researcher, and Dakar native, Fehe Sarr.

Tune in to Worldwide FM from 14:00 to 16:00 GMT to catch the show live. You can still listen back on the show page if you miss that time, and follow us on Mixcloud to get notified about new shows, and listen to past ones.

Further Reading